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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Lyrical Legacy

New ways of working and living transformed the American economy, and American culture, in the last decades of the 19th century. Heavy industry—that is, manufacturing, iron and steel production, and railroad construction—became the most important businesses in the country. A wave of revolutionary new inventions, including the telephone and the electric light bulb, changed the way people lived and worked, just as more and more people were leaving rural areas and moving to the city. By the end of the century, the U.S. had gone from being a country of small towns and farms to a country of big cities and factories. It had also become the wealthiest nation in the world.

Factory owners of the day could enjoy tremendous profits; however, many of their employees had to endure very harsh living and working conditions. In the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined unions or other labor organizations to bargain for better pay and greater workplace safety, sometimes striking—refusing to work to convince employers to agree to their demands.

Facing fierce opposition from the established mass media, labor leaders used many informal methods to spread the word, including popular song. Labor songs were used to raise awareness of the workers’ plight, to recruit new members to the cause, and to keep workers’ morale up during a difficult strike or other labor action. As you read this song, you might ask yourself what the songwriter hoped to accomplish—and how likely you think it is that she succeeded.

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For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.